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Smoke rising to heaven

I spent my last day in India in Varanasi, a city older than God. Varanasi bends around the Ganges, India’s holiest river. It’s a pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus who come to bathe in the water in the hopes that they can escape their Karmic cycling and move on. No more coming back and living another life as a cow or a fruit fly.

Varanasi was one of the most challenging places I visited in India, and one of the most peaceful. There is more poverty here than I have seen so far. Lots of folks living in tiny hovels, wearing little more than shreds. The touts from those selling everything from taxi rides to spiritual healing is nearly relentless. I did completely succumb, however, to the cutest little girl at one of the ghats. She was probably seven years old and approached me with total confidence, asking if I wanted to buy one of the little bowls she had laid out in the basket she was carrying. Each bowl was made of woven leaves and held rose petals and one small candle. I said “no” as politely as I could, several times, but she took my hand and led me down the stone steps to the river’s edge to show me how it’s done. She set down her basket and deftly struck a match. She lit the candle and told me to put it in the water. I asked her if she would do it for me and she did. I saw a wise sage in that little girl, worldly way beyond her years. Her soul could have spent a hundred trips through this life. She could have been the collected spirit of the entire city of Varanasi before it was plundered and burned by the Mughals. She held that moment in the palm of her hand and commanded my attention with the softest of little girl voices. In that moment, she owned me. She placed the bowl in the water and gave it a push. It moved out into the slow-moving Ganges to join the dozen or so other flickering lights.

There are over eighty ghats in Varanasi, all on the West side of the river as it makes a bend to the East. The asymmetry of the buildings only being on one side works perfectly for the purpose of pilgrimage. Some sixty thousand a day come to wash their souls, or their hair, or their cows. They approach the water with towering temples behind them, atop steep stairs of varying pitch and depth. Before them, their holiest of rivers. And on the other side, emptiness. Brown grass, blue sky, and a gentle breeze. There is on this river bank, literally and spiritually, this side and the other side. On the human side, suffering. On the other side, redemption. Heaven. Peace.

Indians also bring their dead to be cremated at two of the ghats. Outcasts from the lowest castes build funeral pyres with just the right amount of wood to cremate a person. There are about a dozen fires going at once.

My father was cremated less than two years ago. The last time we saw him was in his hospital bed. After we left the hospital, his body was removed, prepared, and cremated. We then took his ashes to Huntington to be sprinkled in the Ohio, our own holy river. At Varanasi, families prepare the body. They then drape it with layers of shimmering gold fabric and carry it down to the water’s edge. They give the body a quick dip, remove the layers of fabric and lay it on the pyre, wrapped only in a tight, gauzy white shroud. The fire is started with bundles of dry grass and the flames build quickly. Huge billows of smoke are illuminated by one large floodlight on top of the ghat. The smells of the river, cow dung, stale water and mud and the smoke from wood, fabric and flesh penetrate me.

This business is carried out twenty four hours a day, every day. It’s quite the enterprise, with a small market at the top of the ghat for purchasing the gold fabric, for paying the burning fee, purchasing the wood for burning and sandalwood powder that’s thrown in the fire, and a barber for the male members of the family to have their faces and heads shaved. The fire builders never stop working. Carrying and stacking large bundles of wood, tending to the fires, making sure the bodies are properly consumed, their labor both sacred and mundane. After about three hours the fire dies to a point where it can be dowsed with water. The ashes are then put into the river.

I spent about three hours at the burning ghats that night. I had a lot of apprehension about watching the ritual burning. I was afraid that it would be more difficult because of my own father’s cremation. I was surprised to find it quite peaceful. There seemed to be a connection that the families had to the process that perhaps I did not. So, that night I got to participate in some small way with freeing a soul. It’s amazing to think that this has been going on for thousands of years. I sat there on the concrete steps, feeling the warm air, smelling the smells, feeling so completely out of time and out of place and at the same time absolutely accepted. I was held in this ancient moment of transcendence where families send their loved one’s bodies back to the five elements of space, water, fire, wind and earth, and their spirits to God. Someone once said that human knowledge of our own death causes us to die just a little every day. We’re not long on this quick spin around the mortal coil and sitting watching the fires helped me just a little to let go of my own fear of dying.

The entire day was filled with the sacred and the profane, often in the same breath. I felt quite privileged to be on those ghats, at that river and to be alive.

I flew back to Delhi the next day, my third entrance to that blissful chaos. Today I left India and flew to Katmandu. Nepal is similar to India in some ways, but there is a bit more space here. Thinner air, more room, less garbage, no cow shit, horrible air pollution, and many more smiles. The Nepalese seem at first glance to be happier, lighter than their Indian neighbors. Perhaps Buddhism has cast a layer of calm over this Shangri-La. And there is a buzz here that is no doubt aided by the trekking industry. I’m not physically prepared for a serious trek through the Himalayas, but I bought a book and tomorrow I’ll investigate some low impact hikes that will get me closer to the mountains. Everest base camp will have to wait for another trip, but I do want to go smell that crisp mountain air.

I’ve decided to take a break from this blog. I have an obsessive-compulsive mind and I have noticed myself “spectatoring”, observing my experience as I’m in it and then narrating it in my head in preparation for writing it here. That’s not working for me and I want to drop down into a more immediate experience. This has been fun, but the only way I can see right now to dive deeper into this journey is to stop writing about it. I’m hoping I can find a way to be really present and still post from time to time, but right now I need to give it a rest.

Thanks for reading.

Peace.

Uttar Pradesh

Hello from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and a couple top engineering universities.

It’s been quite a few days.

One thing that has become quite obvious is that I am trying to do too much. In the way that travel reveals much about my regular life, this element reminds me of how I cram too much into a day, trying to take in everything I possibly can. I’m doing that over here. There is so much to this life and I want to swallow every taste. I am way too attached to this experience of being alive but I don’t see it dampening any time soon.

The disilluionment I felt in Pushkar has melted and I’ve softened in areas I wasn’t aware were stiff. I suppose it’s not a bad thing to have your illusions broken down, but it’s not fun while it’s happening.

I am quite aware of a longing in me that drives much of my life. In India, it is quite pronounced. I just want to take this entire country into my mouth and savor it. Even things that bothered me so much early on have embedded themselves in my desires. A couple days ago I realized that I was finding the smell of a trash fire to be comforting, where for most of my time here I resisted the acrid smell of burning plastic and other garbage that burns morning and night. It’s amazing to see how something like that can become familiar and homey. I guess that’s how it happens that people take on practices that would drive crazy those unfamiliar.

I had a crazy experience two days ago. I had hired a car and driver for three days, a very common practice here, especially among Indians since few of them own cars. The driver had been annoying because he was fairly erratic, even for an Indian driver. After lunch on Friday, his driving became really bad, swerving from side to side and barely missing oncoming trucks. I tried to relax but it kept getting worse. The thought finally occured to me that he might be intoxicated. As the fear washed over me, I decided that, if it didn’t get better quickly, I was going to demand he let me out on the side of the road. We were halfway between Jaipur and Agra, with very little going on except scattered farms and occasional roadside stands, but I figured I would be much better off hitching a ride than staying with this guy. As the driving got worse, I began to yell at him to stay on our side of the road. Just as I was about to tell him to pull over, a large tour bus gradually pushed us off to the side of the road. The driver tried to back up to continue driving and I began to yell at him to stop the car. A second tour bus pulled over and blocked us in. At that point the driver of the first tour bus came over, grabbed the keys from the ignition of our car, and began screaming at the driver and slapping his face. I bolted out of the car, grabbed my bags and then tried to stop the one driver from slapping the other. A crowd had gathered and the slapping subsided but the yelling continued. I saw a tear flow from my drivers eye and felt sorry for him. But I was also angry, and terribly relieved to have been rescued.

I was then whisked into the tour bus, filled with surprised and sympathetic Dutch tourists. They could not have been nicer. I rode with them to their hotel, had some lunch, and then some folks from the hotel drove me the rest of the way into Agra.

I hesitated writing this because I didn’t want my mom to read it. She’s fairly anxious about this trip and I don’t want to add to her anxiety, but… well, mom. Shit happens. And, amazingly, sometimes the universe steps in and rescues us.

I’ve had a fantastic few days since then, my cancelled train to Varanasi last night notwithstanding. It seems that the best way to get there now is to take a train back to Delhi and then fly to Varanasi tomorrow.

Too many things. But, Varanasi is a must-do-hell-or-high-water for me.

I wish I had more time to write, about the warm encounters I had at the Taj Mahal with some teachers from Delhi, or the couple hours I just spent in a new shopping mall watching folks trying to navigate an escalator (many, apparantly for the first time) or the terribly sweet openings I felt at Vrindavan yesterday. Vrindavan is definitely a place I want to return to. It just tenderized me. I got to see the hundreds of widows chanting at one of the temples (look up “widows of Vrindavan” for more info.) I could have sat there listening for hours.

India has layed me open. It’s breaking my heart and I’m falling in love. I can see why people return here over and over again. There have been times when I have thought about spending my entire trip here.

There’s an autorickshaw waiting to take me to the train station. There, I’ll see if I can catch the Shitabdi Express to Delhi.

I’m having an amazing time and I also miss my family and friends. Be well, all of you.

Rajasthan

I’ve been cramming too much into the last few days with not enough time to feel a part of any place I visit.

I’ve noticed pretty much from the beginning that the voice that comes out in these posts is a fairly narrow one. It goes about as deep as my senses and pretty much stops there. My experience is changing as I go, and I think that, in order for me to continue getting anything out of this, I’m going to have to sink down into a different place when I write. Thing is, I’ve never done that in public.

I only have a few minutes in this Internet/copy/printing house. So, I’ll probably stick with the observations for now.

Rajasthan is the desert part of India. Camels on sand dunes and stone forts rising out of nowhere. Intense colors punctuating a brown and green landscape. Men in white shirts and sarong-type skirt things with brilliantly colored turbans. Camels put to work pulling carts from the marble quarries. Trucks everywhere. Big, loud, brightly painted trucks with intricate designs and dangly things and baubles hanging all over the cockpit. Trucks with sacks of stuff and men riding on top of the stuff, blasting down the road, black smoke pouring from the tailpipe. They almost all have something painted on the back like “Horn Please”, or “Blow Horn”, “Sound Horn OK”. Since everyone wants to drive in the middle of the road, blaring your horn is the preferred way to let the driver know that you need to get by.

Yesterday, on the way to Pushkar, there was a traffic jam caused by about fifty monkeys. Sitting. In the road.

Watched the sun set over the lake in Pushkar, while sitting at one of the fifty-six ghats. So beautiful, as the evening turned cool and incense wafted through the air. There was chanting and singing and holy men praying and families tossing rose petals into the holy water. The flowers, rice, coconuts, and color are offered to God in hopes that prayers will be answered. Then the holy man asks for a donation and everyone is happy, except for the skeptic. At some point, maybe I’ll write about how I navigate this terrain, If I can come to a place of understanding for myself.

The ghats circle the lake, with buildings circling the ghats. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and were built by the Rajahs who each had their own special ghat. It’s disconcerting to me and not a little annoying that, behind the ghats, ringing the lake as well, one layer back, are shops of all kinds and the same annoying taunts that interrupt every step at every other touristed site. While I fully appreciate that this is a very poor country and people need to make a living where they can, I would love to be able to visit a beautiful place like Pushkar without constantly having to say “no”. I don’t like walking down the street not making eye contact or responding when someone says “hello”. I need room in brain for something other than responding to sales pitches.

I’m finding my frustrations with India to be on the increase. There are so many things that folks do that just isn’t in anyone’s interest. I know we all do that, but, folks… turn your lights on when you drive at night! When you see an entire family of five on a scooter on the highway, maybe give them more than three inches of room. Stop complaining about the mess as you drop your cup on the ground. Think about maybe NOT taking a shit right next to the ancient temple. Maybe move down the road just a bit. It’s confounding and maddening at times.

I have to run and I feel rather disconnected to this process right now. I need to evaluate how and where this site is fitting into my intentions for this trip. It’s been a lot of fun and I so appreciate the positive responses, but I’m finding myself distracted by it.

Hmm… we’ll see where it leads.

Peace, y’all.

From Delhi, with rain

Delhi is intense. Intensely intense. And being alone here, is, well…. intense.

My head is spinning. I’ve been walking through the markets of old Delhi and came across this ‘cyber cafe’. Old Delhi is like stepping back in time a hundred (or thousand) years, except for the scooters and the riot of electrical wires strung overhead. It’s just too much to take in. Really. So, I don’t really try to take it all in. I walked and walked through the market’s tiny streets and when I found an open spot I just stood there for a really long time. It comes at you like watching twenty bizaar movies at the same time. I’m in the process of letting go of the notion that I can figure this place out. When I realize there’s no way I can comprehend what the hell I’m seeing, I extrapolate that to my own life and realize that, when I think I have it all figured out and tied up in a bow, I’m deluding myself.

I love it here. And I hate it a little, too.

The next few days are a combination of stop and go, with a car and driver, overnight train and airplane. Pushkar, Jaipur, Vrindavan, Mathura, Agra and Varanasi. Then back to Delhi to fly to Katmandu.

I arrived Sunday on very little sleep so I napped for several hours. Or hid, depending on how you look at it. I’m staying in the Karol Bagh neighborhood where the predominant business is fine ‘jewellery’. Several of the bigger shops have guards standing outside with 12-guage shotguns hanging from their shoulders. Second to those are the numerous stalls that sell scooter and car parts. There are folks in the street and on the sidewalk rebuilding Vespa transmissions and welding parts to old Royal Enfield motorcycles. By dusk, the sidewalks begin to glow deep amber from the numerous coal fires that are started in order to cook dinner. It rained last night, with deep thunder and lightening that cracked through the darkness, revealing huddled figures sipping dinner from their bowls.

There are fires all over the place. Yesterday morning, I saw three men build a fire in the doorway of an abandoned jewelry store. A fire made from the piles of garbage laying all around. Apparently they were building it to keep warm. It was such an odd sight… well dressed men gathering garbage in a pile, on the front step of a business, with others walking in and out of the building, stepping around the fire.

I don’t get this place. And that’s part of the amazing charge.

I was energized that first night, feeling the thriving spirit of this city and all the people in it. There are some extremely poor people here, but most of them don’t seem to let it stop them from engaging in whatever enterprise will bring them their next meal. They work hard. Extremely hard. And they scrape together a life and they don’t ask for anything, except your business. There are beggers but there are many fewer than I expected to see. There are countless schemes and scams and ripoffs and the corruption runs so thick here that the ‘black’ economy is almost as large as the legitimate one. And there is an innocence that belies the ancient and worldly hardness that is read in the faces. There are wealthy folks here, too. Rich from all over the world. And there is garbage. Everywhere. And after the rain, mud. There are faces of children beaming and laughing and lighting up when they see my camera. They clamor for me to take their pictures. The poorer ones then want ten Rupees for the honor but most just love the interaction. Folks all over stop to say hello and ask where I’m from. It’s impossible for me to determine at first if these greetings are genuinely open connections or openings for some solicitation or complex scam.

And there are some of the most beautiful women on the planet. And they’re dressed in the saris and the Indian pajama and kurta that flow in the breeze. I have to say something about the women here. They are painfully beautiful. Their luscious dark skin and eyes ‘as deep as a well’, jet black hair tied back to reveal the gold dandling from thier ears. It is yet another contrast in this beguiling country that, in a place where even holding hands in public is considered innappropriately sexual, they wear the sexiest piece of clothing ever devised. The sari is without question the most amazing arrangement of silk ever conceived. It seems to barely wrap their bodies with brightly colored wind. Completely tantalizing.

And, a pregnant belly sticking out of a silk sari? HOT.

I hope I don’t offend my Muslim brothers and sisters by describing how sexy the veil is. Holy smokes. If they wanted to make women sexier by revealing only their perfect eyes and the occassional piece of gold, they have succeeded.

I just don’t get what’s going on with that and I won’t try. I’m sure folks more scholarly than me have written volumes on the sexuality of Muslim women. I certainly won’t use this space to discuss oppression or inequality. That discussion is beyond the scope of this here little weblog.

I’m being kicked out of here. It’s 9:00 and time for Indians to start thinking about dinner. I love a country that eats dinner between 9:00 and 10:00.

Peace, y’all.

The next step…

In some ways, my trip begins tomorrow. So far, I’ve had the company of my brother, who showed me around London and shared with me the initial surprises that are India. He flew out of Bangalore today for home and tomorrow I leave for Delhi. All by my little self.

We’ve had a great time here in the ‘deep south’. Thursday we hired a car and went to Srirangapatna and Mysore, gazing at crenulated palaces of Tipu Sultan and the Wodeyar. Yesterday we drove farther south to Kodagu and ended up staying in a working coffee plantation. High up the mountain, in a rainforest with no rain, in a guesthouse called Honey Valley, we hiked amid the ‘exotic’ sounds of jungle birds and insects we couldn’t see, on the lookout for elephants we didn’t find. Hot and humid, with cool evening breezes and fragrant coffee beans fermenting on the patio, we gorged ourselves on delicious treats made by the attentive folks working there. An interesting combo of working farm and guesthouse. It was such a welcome respite of quiet and calm and clean.

Then a brutal drive back to Bangalore, dodging creatures great and small, in our tiny TATA, a two cylinder car made here in India. This evening I got to visit the family of a good friend and coworker. It was very sweet to complete the loop and meet my friend’s mom and the rest of her clan. We packed my brother off to the airport a short bit ago for his 3:30am flight to SF via Mumbai and London. It’s been truly wonderful sharing this experience with him and I am so happy that we were able to make this trip together.

It’s also been a complete blast to reconnect with our old friend Amit who has been such an amazing host. It’s been quite a luxury to be introduced to India by someone so knowledgeable and who can speak Kannada, the predominant language of the state of Karnataka.

So, tomorrow morning, I leave the comfort of my friend, his luxurious home with plenty of hot water, high speed Internet access, boundless information and resources at my fingertips, and head off to Delhi to fend for myself. I admit I’m rather anxious about this step. I have another ten days in India before leaving for Nepal. India presents many challenges and I have been told that those challenges are much more pronounced in the north than in the more hospitable south. And while traveling alone allows for the most intense experience (in my experience), traveling in India is unlike travel in anyplace I’ve ever been. Just as many things you encounter here make perfect sense, many things are completely inside-out from what you would expect. There is no predicting what you will find here and there’s often no way to make sense of it once you find it. And, that’s part of the reason I came.

I doubt I’ll be able to post as often or as easily. I’m not sure what the rest of the trip will bring, and I guess that’s a big reason I’m going.

Thanks to everyone for all the love and support you’ve offered. I’m truly humbled by it. Although I’m going alone, I feel the warmth of those I’m taking with me in my heart.

Peace, y’all.

A very special place

We arrived back in Bangalore yesterday morning after a rather bumpy overnight train from Hospet. Hospet was our connecting point from Hampi.

Hampi.

Let that name rest into your psyche, because someday, you will come to Hampi. Perhaps in a book, or in real life, or maybe in your dreams, but you will visit here. This was the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire and it’s clear why they chose this land. There is magic here. You can see the magic when you look at the giant boulders that defy gravity, sitting precariously on the sides of granite outcroppings. But mostly you can feel it; in your bones and your head, your heart and your belly, and the soles of your feet. This is not scary, witchy-poo magic. This is whimsical, fun, life-is-a-delicious-treat magic. It’s in the hills and the stones and in the breeze. A peaceful and welcoming magic. There is a resonance here, a gentle play of harmonizing vibrations that seem to embrace you and assure you that you are held, connected to this earth, to each other, to God… you can feel your heart in Hampi. My friend Tim, who visited here last year said, “this is a very, very special place.” Indeed.

The area around Hampi has nearly 2,000 temples, y’all. Two thousand!! They range from large columned affairs to small stone carvings the size of two or three children huddled together. There is plenty of ornate detail to the carvings that adorn the walls and columns of the temples, but the real beauty lies in their harmony; the harmony of their design and of their location in relation to the earth and hills made of piles of giant boulders. There are temples that are clustered together in what look like villages. Imagine a village of temples! What does that say about the culture that built them? Other temples sit alone in fields or atop the many hills surrounding the area. Some are perched on boulders on the sides of hills. You can’t open your eyes in Hampi without them falling on the sight of a temple.

Hampi teams with animal life… cows, pigs, lots of stray dogs, and monkeys that seem to pop up everywhere. Monkeys clamoring on temples, jumping between boulders, climbing up and down buildings on the main street… they travel in groups and seem to do everything with a sense of determination, even if it’s playing or tugging on each other’s tails.

Sunrise brings crowing roosters and smoke. Smoke from cooking fires–some of them on the sides of roads–and burning garbage. They must be burning most of the tons of plastic water bottles we use because the morning air burns my nostrils. The daily smells of cooking food, dung, smoke, spice, incense, and earth, all playing in your nose. Women hunched over, sweeping with long grass bundles, sweeping all the time in a constant battle against dust and trash.

Devotional music lilts through the air. Religion lives integrated into most daily life here, not relegated to Sunday morning. They wear it on their bodies, infuse the air with incense and flowers, make intricate chalk drawings outside the doors of homes and businesses as a welcome.

I had originally timed my arrival in India to correspond with Holi, the spring-time festival held on the day after a full moon. I had come to realize that Bangalore does not really celebrate Holi, so I had lowered my expectations about it. I did not do the math to realize that, since we had moved our arrival in Hampi a couple days earlier, that we would be there for Holi.

Holi in Hampi. It could not have been more perfect. The Hampi Bazaar has the relaxed buzz of a center of a small village where the locals have moved into some of the ruins and setup shop. That main drag was the center of Holi. When you look up Holi, you’ll see that one of the most recognizable features of the celebration is the smearing of color on the faces, bodies, and clothes of those around you. In Hampi, this was led by children. What started as a few kids chasing each other around became an all out frenzied colorfest in the middle of the street. Being chased by small kids with water bottles filled with colored water, and chasing them back, trying to get your own color on their beautiful faces. Some adults–mostly foreigners and tourists–joined in and added squirt guns filled with colored water. After a while, drums turned running and play into frenzied dancing and the teaming, bouncing, color-splashing crowd of light-skin and dark, pigment and colored water spraying in all directions, danced its way down the street in the shadow of the largest temple in town.

This was one of the sweetest experiences I’ve had in a very long time. To approach total strangers and touch green pigment to their noses, to have small children with beaming smiles on their faces reach up and smear purple on your cheek, is about as sweet a connection with people as I can imagine. This celebration showed me something about myself, that I thrive on connections with people. I long for it, hunger for it. It motivates most of my actions in this life. To touch people, to be gentle and playful… what more could I want out of life?! I knew I had wanted to be a part of Holi, if I could, but I now know why. To break down the normal barriers that keep us at a safe distance and to touch one another is just more magic to me. I feel so blessed to have found myself in this mayhem of fun.

Then something bad happened. My brother came up to me, coughing and choking, and said he had inhaled a bunch of the powdered pigment. We went back to the guest house and for the next few hours he coughed and wheezed as the pigment burned his throat and sinuses and eyes. Turns out the pigment we were throwing around was industrial strength and was certainly not meant to be inhaled. Some kids had grabbed for his bag of color and he had accidentally inhaled quite a bit of it. We were both rather concerned for the rest of the day. Actually, we were pretty freaked out as he was having trouble breathing. By evening, he was beginning to feel better so we got some food and relaxed a bit. A couple days later he was fine and mostly happy for the experience.

So, if you happen to be in India for Holi, remember to keep your mouth closed!

Later that afternoon, we explored more ruins up on Hemakuta Hill which overlooks Hampi Bazaar. Randy went back to the guest house after a bit and I stayed on top of the hill and waited for the pink and purple of dusk. Hemakuta Hill appears to be a granite monolith with an occasional tree sprouting out of the stone. It’s dotted with temples large and small and has an eerie, exciting air to it.

The next day we rented a small motorcycle and explored the outlying areas. Riding on the left side of the road was not as challenging as navigating around ox carts and through herds of sheep. As I was waiting to pick up the motorbike, a young boy stopped and said hello. He saw the pink and blue on my neck and smiled and said Happy Holi. We chatted for a minute and then he said there was a picture of the two of us in the Hospet newspaper, that there had been a reporter in town who had taken our picture as we chased each other around. I was excited to hear this but then after another minute he said, “well… it may have been you, or it may have been someone else, because you all look the same.”

Yes. I guess we do.

The teeth rattling ride back to Hospet in an auto rickshaw was jarring in comparison to the gentle serenity of Hampi. The auto attempted to pass everything in sight and, as with most vehicles we’ve seen so far, used the horn to announce that it’s coming through and you better make way. Entering Hospet is quite an insane trip with a billion things to look at and look out for. There was a traffic jam as we entered the town, made up of auto rickshaws, trucks, ox-carts, motorcycles, herds of sheep, bicycles, dogs, cows, and people of all ages, all in the middle of the street, all heading somewhere, all in a hurry, all making noise. At one point a guy on a motorbike ran into our auto. The driver stopped and looked back. Satisfied that the rider would live, he took off again.

Back in Bangalore, I seem to have come down with some kind of flu-like bug. I’m glad that I haven’t had any digestive problems yet but a bit bummed that I came across some run-of-the-mill-make-you-feel-like-crap virus. It’s going to slow down our road trip a bit but I think I’ll still be up for the drive to Mysore. At least being sick has allowed me the time to write.

I miss my friends and family. I miss hugs and familiar places. And I’m having an amazing time. I wish everyone well.

From the sandlewood capital

Randy and I landed in Bangalore early this morning. After a long delay in Mumbai, we arrived in India’s high tech capital and were “reached” by our friend Amit, a fellow West Virginian. I think it’s important to note that, so far in London and India, we have been pampered and held by old friends from our home state. When you combine India’s hospitality–a trait apparently found in their DNA–with a Huntingtonian’s gentle openness, you get an amazing host. (Amit’s father, Dr. Akkihal, was a very close friend and colleague of my father’s and we’ve been friends with his family since we were kids.)

Our first experience of India was at the airport in Mumbai at 3:00 this morning, where every encounter with officials seemed a combination of exacting efficiency and befuddling absurdity. No one instance stands out as noteworthy, but the entire experience just confirms what we expected; that anything can and will happen and it’s rarely what you expect. If there’s a Murphy’s Law of culture and human interaction, it would be well displayed here. The meaning I want to make from this is that there is a lot going on around us at any given moment that we don’t notice, and being in a different culture locates the simplest parts of life far out of the bounds of assumptions.

The kindness and gentle nature of the people here is very welcoming. Our presence last night in the airport waiting room brought many double-takes and some staring, but a gentle smile and nod elicited the same from our curious onlookers. I did have moments of feeling that I was on display but kindness and consideration ruled the early morning.

There’s nothing I can say about India that hasn’t been said so much better by others, so I should stick to my own experience. But, my experience so far is out of reach of my ability to describe it. I open my mouth and poetry wants to come out, but there are no words. I want to sing about the aromas and visual landscapes and I just can’t get the sound started. It’s like trying to describe Indian food. All the elements are here, mingling with each other like the spiciest chole and the coolest raita, but I just don’t have it in me to describe. There is a subtly delicious aroma here, a mix of some flowering plant, red earth, and incense lingering on everyone’s clothing. Tantalizing, is the word. I just want to open my mouth and take it all in.

On arrival at Amit’s place we met some friends of the Akkihals who teach at Ohio University. They’re staying here while their house is being finished. They knew my father, or at least knew of him, so we had a bit of a small-world moment. Amit lives in his father’s house, a luxurious three-bedroom in a gated community near the edge of town. The contrast between the clean and quite of this tightly monitored area and the dust and chaos of outside the gates is striking. After a little nap, we were treated to an amazing dinner prepared by the cook. It took Amit a while to get used to having domestic help in the house until he realized how helpful it is to those working here to have decent paying jobs in a clean environment. We then ventured out into the balmy evening.

Our driver arrived by scooter and then drove us in the family car. While Amit knows how to drive, he still, after two years, does not feel comfortable driving on Indian roads. I don’t blame him. I have to say that I’ve never experienced anything like it. There are lines on the road but they seem to be used to center the car rather than for dividing them into lanes. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and bikes all converge in a mass of jockeying insanity with barely inches between them. There’s no way I can describe the mayhem. Perhaps I’ll post a video of it someday.

We’ve been looking at maps and trying to put together a plan for the short time Randy is here. Looks like we’re going to head to Hampi by night train and then hire a car and driver for a driving tour to Kerala and back. Amit will probably join us for the driving and we’ll probably hit places he has not yet seen.

It’s very exciting to be here and somewhat overwhelming. I have to say that I’m really glad to be so well looked after for the first week. I’m beginning to feel tender openings for my fellow humans. Three-year-old children following you on the sidewalk, tugging at your shirt and pointing to their bellies only softens my already bleeding heart. I realized something on the drive home that took me somewhat by surprise; that I am very happy to not be poor. At first, that feels hardened and doesn’t seem to match with my desire to embrace all my brothers and sisters. But it has nothing to do with my desires or my wishes for others. It’s a very simple realization about my place in this current reality, that as long as there are rich and poor, I’m very happy to be rich.

Wow… that feels really weird to say. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this as I continue my trip.

I love y’all and I wish everyone well.